Adventures in Ethics and Science

You know how graduate students are always complaining that their stipends are small compared to the cost of living? It seems that some graduate students find ways to supplement that income … ways that aren’t always legal. For example, from this article in the September 8, 2008 issue of Chemical & Engineering News [1]:

Jason D. West, a third-year chemistry graduate student at the University of California, Merced, was arraigned last month on charges of conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine, manufacturing methamphetamine, and possessing stolen property. West allegedly stole approximately $10,000 worth of equipment and chemicals from the university to make the illegal drug.

West, 36, pleaded not guilty to the charges and as of press time was in jail on $1 million bail. Police have found materials traced to West at three different meth labs and in one vehicle, says Tom MacKenzie of the Merced County Sheriff’s Department.

The police ended up arresting West following an investigation by UC-Merced campus police of the whereabouts of a vacuum pump that went missing from West’s graduate lab. Graduate students take note: your advisor will miss that expensive piece of lab equipment.

It is alleged that West was using the vacuum pump plus other equipment and chemicals stolen from the lab to synthesize as much as 9 kg of methamphetamine. At a street price of $750 per 3.5 g, that could be a gross of $1,928,571 and change for the drug makers, dependent on the actual yields achieved. I do not know what the net profit would be, but stealing the starting materials and equipment is one way to keep your overhead down.

Interestingly, it is not obvious who precisely is the victim of this theft:

The equipment and chemicals West allegedly stole were originally purchased with university start-up funds rather than federal grant money, says Maria Pallavicini, dean of UC Merced’s School of Natural Sciences.

Stealing from the feds might well have different legal consequences than stealing from the State of California or a private source of funding. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the court proceedings.

The article also mentions that West allegedly departed from the recent strategy of using pseudoephedrine as the starting material in his meth synthesis, instead starting with phenyl-2-propanone (P2P). It’s not clear from the article whether this was an easier material to steal from the lab or simply a less obvious meth starting material.

Historically, meth cookers using the P2P method typically produced relatively impure methamphetamine, but MacKenzie [of the Merced County Sheriff's Department] says West was able to produce more than 95% pure drug, a quality similar to that prepared from pseudoephedrine. P2P is regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under the Controlled Substances Act, along with pseudoephedrine and other chemicals commonly used to make methamphetamine and other illegal drugs.

Although the P2P meth synthesis is more involved (requiring reduction of the P2P with methylamine before hydrogenation to methamphetamine), it yields a racemic mixture of methamphetamine molecules rather than the enantiomerically pure methamphetamine obtained from pseudoephedrine. That may well impact the activity of the drug, although I am not the right blogger to ask. (DrugMonkey or Abel might know.)

The ethical issues from the grad student’s point of view here are pretty clear cut. Stealing from your graduate lab to manufacture and distribute illegal drugs is bad. Even if you have some principled drug-legalization stand, the stealing is a non-starter. Moreover, even if no federal funds paid for any part of what you stole, at a school in the UC system chances are good that some money from California taxpayers was part of the start-up funds that bough the equipment and chemicals involved. This makes your extracurricular chemistry an example of the conversion of public funds to private profit — another ethical no-no. (We will set aside, for the moment, the possibly analogous cases of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.)

I think the trickier ethical landscape in a case like this involves the university. You see, West had something of a history:

Before starting graduate studies at UC Merced in 2005, West was convicted in 2001 of making methamphetamine in his home, using materials stolen from Giumarra Vineyards, his employer at the time, says Susan Barton, a deputy district attorney for Kern County, Calif. West was sentenced to three years in prison but was found eligible to be treated for narcotic addiction at the California Rehabilitation Center, which is run by the Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation. West was discharged from the addiction program in 2004.

Did the UC-Merced chemistry department have an ethical obligation to keep an eye on West, in light of his history of freelance chemical synthesis? It’s quite likely that they didn’t even know about that history, given that most schools don’t conduct criminal background checks of their graduate students.

Do we want to add criminal background checks to the standard graduate admissions package?

The UT Austin chemistry department does criminal background checks of its graduate students:

“The university mandated them for staff and faculty, and we decided to extend it to grad student employees,” says John Baxendale, administrative manager for UT Austin’s chemistry department. “We basically began doing them just because we thought it was a good practice.”

The results of the checks, which cost the department $5.00 each, are not used as a factor in admissions but could prevent a student from being appointed to a teaching or research assistant position, Baxendale adds.

I don’t know if this means that a record of manufacturing meth, for example, would rule out a grad student’s working in some research labs but not others, or if it would rule out that student’s participating in research in any lab in the department. Obviously, without a place in a research lab, doing the research necessary to write a dissertation is pretty hard.

And without a research position and the accompanying stipend, the need to make money on the side becomes much more pressing.

There’s a deeper question here about whether academic departments (and society at large) can or should assume that individuals can be rehabilitated. Not everyone who has a criminal record is going to reoffend. Not everyone with a history of drug use will continue to use.

The interests of departments and of their students could be at odds here:

Pallavicini adds that the university walks a fine line between trusting students to carry out their research and protecting both individuals and the university. “One has to have a balance between trust and academic freedom and making sure individuals don’t abuse those privileges,” she says.

Total surveillance in the lab doesn’t sound like it would make the graduate school experience any more joyful, but at the same time universities do not want to be found to be negligent with respect to protecting research equipment and materials for their intended uses (either in a court of law or in the court of public opinion).

If there’s a simple way to address this kind of situation without undermining the trust that should exist between graduate student and advisor, I would love to hear it.
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[1] Jyllian Kemsley, “Student Suspected of Making Meth,” Chemical & Engineering News (September 8, 2008) Vol. 86, No. 36, 39-40.

Comments

  1. #1 Mimi
    September 29, 2008

    This is a touchy subject. He is DEFINITELY a chemist though. Unfortunately, this happens more than people know. At certain schools (where the labs don’t have cameras… and yes those do exist) student make Meth right in the hoods after hours. I am so ANTI-ice that it bothered me to find out about this… but there is a deeper root and we should figure out what that is before we begin running background checks.

  2. #2 Rogue Epidemiologist
    September 29, 2008

    Wow. This does nothing to undo the stereotype of the meth-endemic San Joaquin Valley. Uggh.

    As for criminal background checks in students, they’re already a part of medical and pharm school admissions. Grad school wouldn’t be too different, but it would seriously deter convicts from trying to use education as a means to reform themselves. I’m no bleeding heart, but bear in mind, if a felon is keen to pursue higher education, s/he has likely already self-selected him/herself towards doing well academically and would stand a decent chance of succeeding if given a chance.

  3. #3 Jim Lund
    September 29, 2008

    At a street price of $750 per 3.5 g, that could be a gross of $1,928,571 and change for the drug makers, dependent on the actual yields achieved.

    This is the Standard Police Inflated accounting for drug busts, but it is intentionally inflated. For example, coffee sells for around $1 a pound wholesale, but that pound of coffee makes 50 cups of coffee with a ‘street value’ of $100 dollars. Illegal drugs have an even higher distribution markup.

    So the grad student wasn’t making million dollar deals, at a wild guess, somewhere in the low five figures. Of course this is conjectured sales and by the account you quote estimates based on pre-manufacture input chemicals in so if successful his profit would have been even less.

    It sounds more like a small home-based business than like Miami Vice.

  4. #4 Jordan, FCD
    September 29, 2008

    Life imitating art? There is a show on AMC called “Breaking Bad” about a high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth. He steals equipment from his high school and creates pure meth crystals. Interesting show and very intense at times.

  5. #5 Maria
    September 29, 2008

    Meth?! I’m no chemist, but I had the impression that basically anyone can make meth. Shouldn’t chemistry grad students be making trickier drugs like LSD, where their expertise will add more value to the product?

  6. #6 Josh from Canada
    September 29, 2008

    This is an interesting story. I’m in an applied math graduate program, and thinking about asking for criminal background checks is almost laughable, in my opinion. The people in my program are so squeaky clean a night of drinking at the pub is raunchy. I don’t know if it’s the difference in discipline or area, but around here, I myself can’t imagine doing background checks. Of course, I don’t really have access to anything to produce meth or any other narcotic (I barely have access to a PC), but it’s still something I’ve never though of.

  7. #7 Chemist
    September 30, 2008

    I have to say this very rare among chemists. All of us are able to make drugs and bombs and poisons quite easily but almost none of us misuse this ability. Sounds like this guy was doing this long before grad school. As for the first poster, I have never worked in a lab with cameras, and only once in my whole career have I suspected someone of (off-site) drug manufacture. If you’re seeing people cooking in a hood then you need to be placing a phone call to police from an anonymous location. Chemistry takes a lot of effort and knowledge to practice successfully and for the vast majority of chemists, the personality profile is not consistent with junking that for drug making. I’m not concerned that this shows any deeper pattern.

  8. #8 Robert Bird
    September 30, 2008

    There was a reference to a previous bust in the article as well:

    In 2004, the San Diego State University (SDSU) chemistry department notified police that graduate student Matthew H. Finley was running late-night, large-scale reactions that were inconsistent with his research on small-scale organic synthesis. After an eight-month undercover investigation, DEA seized methamphetamine, fentanyl and ecstacy from Finley’s lab bench, according to a DEA press release.

    I should be happy that Finley was considerate of lab safety and disposal issues, but leaving quantities of illegal drugs in one’s lab bench doesn’t seem like the smartest idea to me, though once the police were notified, the number of safe place to store his drugs was probably close to zero.

    How often do chemists with criminal records do bad things in lab (versus either comparable people lacking records or comparable people with records not working in lab)? Can advisors or other people sort out people who are trying to improve themselves from those who are looking for a better way to make drugs? (Both of the cited people in the article had previous drug manufacturing/growing crimes but I don’t know if they are representative or not of graduate students with criminal records or graduate students arrested for manufacturing drugs).

  9. #9 S. Rivlin
    September 30, 2008

    My guess is this student planned his meth production scheme before applying to graduate school. The acquiring of a grauate degree in chemistry must have been both a cover-up and a tool to become even a better manufacturer of meth and other illegal drugs. Mr. West appears to be a felon who is familiar with the legal system, with the state support system (stipends) and capable of manipulating these systems to his advantage.

    Unfortunately, these few outliers (outlaws) of our society make life for all of us, the law abiding members, more difficult. Hence, the long lines at the airport, where we are all potential terrorists.

  10. #10 DrugMonkey
    September 30, 2008

    it yields a racemic mixture of methamphetamine molecules rather than the enantiomerically pure methamphetamine obtained from pseudoephedrine. That may well impact the activity of the drug, although I am not the right blogger to ask.

    disc: not a chemist or even really a pharmacologist. I do behavioral pharm. there will be limitations to my description and possibly errors.

    from my limited perspective, and for the non-chemists in the audience, Janet is referring to the fact that many chemical compounds are most easily synthesized or occur in their natural-products-host as an approximately equal mixtures of a left-hand and right-hand mirror image (hold your hands up in front of your face) molecules. In some cases the right or left-hand version of the molecule has much greater ability to interact with the biological receptor proteins expressed in your cells. The amphetamines, for example, confer much of their action by binding to the ‘transporters’ or ‘reuptake mechanisms’ that are on the chemical signaling terminal end of neurons which release the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Interfering with the normal function of these transporters leads to a prolongation of interval during which the neurotransmitters can bind the receptors on the next cell(s) in the signaling chain. The right-hand or dextrorotary version (isomer) of methamphetamine (d-METH) tends to have a greater affinity than the levorotary isomer.

    Consequently, in a wide variety of animal experiments (including in the human laboratory) the d-METH has a lot greater potency to effect stimulant-typical behavioral changes (including the all-important reinforcing/rewarding properties in man and animals) than does l-METH.

    Getting back to the point, at long last, I am unaware of any really huge effects of l-METH that would counteract or oppose those of d-METH. Mostly they would be similar if much, much less potent. So the street product that is the racemate (mixture of d-METH and l-METH) would be less potent on a gram for gram basis compared with pure d-METH. Since methamphetamine users dose to effect, however, this wouldn’t be an issue beyond the usual cut-drug / price-per-high considerations. Assume the guy sells it for half the usual price, users takes twice as much..no problem.

    Interesting for the above comment from Jim Lund though, isn’t it? I wonder how one would honestly determine the ‘street value’ for racemic METH….

  11. #11 Alex
    September 30, 2008

    First, if these drugs were legal and regulated, in the same way that addictive and dangerous substances like alcohol and nicotine are, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    Second, I’m very reluctant to exclude somebody from educational advancement based on a criminal record. A lab where people can slip under the radar and do a lot of stuff without anybody knowing what’s going on presents all sorts of problems that will occur more frequently than meth synthesis. Yes, there’s A LOT to be said for flying under your advisor’s radar (you learn the most on those self-initiated projects). Still, it’s better that the advisor (or at least somebody in the group) secretly knows what the person is doing, and then merely pretends to not know (if the project is a legitimate sideline). This is true for academic reasons (a student shouldn’t be left to flounder), safety reasons (somebody really ought to know what’s happening in the lab) and fiscal reasons (while it’s good to venture off the beaten path and wink at the occasional side project, you can only divert so many resources before it’s a problem).

    If a lab is well-run, side projects will be quietly monitored for a host of reasons completely unrelated to the drug war. Students floundering in their work with no direction are far more common than laboratory drug dealers, and this is the problem we should deal with. Doing that will have the side effect of reducing the number of laboratory drug dealers. (No, it won’t completely eliminate the problem, but it will reduce the frequency of these things.)

    Third, if you absolutely must conduct background checks on grad students, keep the checks and sanctions narrow in scope: There’s no reason to tell the estimated 100 million Americans who have tried pot that they can’t ever go to grad school in chemistry. Limit it to very narrow offenses and sanctions, like extra scrutiny for people who made meth and now want to study organic synthesis–but even then, just scrutinize them, don’t bar them from trying to turn around and pursue a more lawful line of work.

    Finally, do you really want to exclude somebody from studying botany on the grounds that he or she is too good at hydroponics?”

  12. #12 Jyllian
    September 30, 2008

    Thanks for picking up the topic, Janet–it’s always nice to see thoughtful discussion sparked by one of our stories!

    If you and your readers are interested, we’ve posted an update to the West story: Student Accused Of Making Meth Agrees To Plea Deal

    And for Jordan, we have also covered Breaking Bad: Novel TV show features chemist making crystal meth

  13. #13 Breena Ronan
    September 30, 2008

    I agree with Maria, if you are going to manufacture illegal drugs in order to support your grad school habit, at least choose something difficult like LSD. Have some standards! Also, LSD is much less socially destructive than Meth. Even if you didn’t feel bad about the ethics of stealing from the university, selling Meth to anyone is wrong, very very wrong.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    September 30, 2008

    Deja-Vu, Buettner- Janusch (who was mentor to my ex-wife’s father). Buettner- Janusch was brilliant, in his own evil scientist way. His graduate students were innocent, of course.

  15. #15 Eva
    October 2, 2008

    The school might not have known he was convicted before, but they would have seen his CV when he applied to grad school, and especially for a grad student who doesn’t come straight from undergrad there would have had to be something explaining what he did in the time in between. If not jail, then he lied on his CV.

  16. #16 fish
    October 3, 2008

    I’d say the fact that this story stirred up more comments on this blog than any other means that this is something thats fairly uncommon. If I recall correct I believe that 87% of all convicted criminals are high school drop outs. I honestly believe that the more that is invested to ones future the less likely it is for them to throw it away.

  17. #17 Heather
    October 24, 2008

    Way late on this post but thought I’d throw my two cents in anyways.
    I’m a convicted felon with a fairly extensive misdemeanor history as well. It has probably been just enough time since my crimes for me to get a job at 7-11. Maybe not. I’m also an addict in recovery. Every crime I committed was directly related to my addiction.
    At 26, two years after I got clean, I went back to school. I have had a 4.0 since returning and am preparing to graduate with a degree in Anthropology/Geography. I was worried that my brain would be too shot for the hard sciences when I first went back, and shied away from them. Recently I have discovered that is not true, and am pursuing a second degree, probably in biochemistry. I plan to go to grad school no matter what.
    Although I’ve been honest on financial aid forms and all applications, I’ve told no one the extent of my previous history. There’s a lot of stigma that comes with being an addict, never mind being a felon. Sometimes I worry that I could get a doctorate and not be able to pass the criminal background checks to work in academia, although at least with this story I’m relieved to know I’ll be able to get into grad school!
    Anyways, once an addict always an addict isn’t true. We do go on to recover and live functional, productive lives. Can a background check really include this perspective? It seems almost any background check will be to exclude some people. What is the background check for if no punitive measures are taken?
    Because I attend recovery meetings I happen to know many teachers, students, bankers, lawyers, business owners and even neurosurgeons who are addicts. Probably most people we work with, eat lunch with, go to school with, etc, have no idea we are in recovery or of the dramatically different lives we used to live. We blend right in after a few years clean.
    So anyways, yup, some addicts slip through and do stuff like rob the lab. So hold that person accountable. But it seems like background checks will be accompanied by stigma and exclusion from higher education. Which seems like further, unwarranted punishment for those who are just trying to be a part of life again.
    Just thought I’d throw this in, peace.